I tell AikBeng Chia, a deeply admired street photographer in Singapore, that the young film photographers I chatted with mentioned him as an inspiring influence. And I can almost see him smile on the other end. “Is that so? I honestly wouldn’t imagine it,” he admits.
Chia’s warmth belies the gritty, raw photos he takes—perhaps it’s just the quality that makes his subjects let him into their most private moments. His best known project and photo-book, Tonight the Streets Are Ours (2013), is a soulful journey into the lives of Little India’s residents after dark. An ongoing project, SingKarPor (that’s what ‘Singapore’ sounds like in Hokkien), is Chia’s way of building a “time capsule” for those who come after him, inhabiting a drastically altered city. His older series include one with the performers of the only surviving Teochew Opera in Singapore, formed in the 19th century. And another on seniors seeking companionship in Club Hawaii, the city’s oldest nightclub.
You came to street photography quite unexpectedly, at the age of 40—tell us more?
I am a graphic designer at an ad agency, where all photography is meticulously staged. When I hit a creative roadblock in 2008, I picked up what was around—my iPhone—and began taking pictures of everything I saw. It was only in 2010 that I started paying attention and shooting the Singapore that people didn’t get to see or thought mundane. I was excited to capture the expressions of open-mouthed tourists “drinking” water from the Merlion, and three of the last back-alley barbers in Chinatown. By the way—I dislike the term ‘street photographer’…
What do you prefer to be known as?
A documentary photographer, perhaps. My reason for taking pictures is simple—what I see is what you get. I don’t even caption most of them. I let the viewer dictate the caption.
Tell us about the photo-book on Little India.
Chinatown and Arab Street have been very touristy for quite some time now, and I thought of Little India as a last bastion on that front in 2010. I took my iPhone to document the nighttime in the neighbourhood for two years. I didn’t care if my pictures were noisy or pixelated, because the place opened my eyes to a different reality of Singapore. I remember a migrant worker asking me, “What’s the point of watching us peel onions and potatoes? Are we going to be on the news?”
The Singapore of your pictures is very different from the one you grew up in. What was the city of the 1970s like?
I grew up in a kampong (village) on the west coast of the city, where the Science Park now stands. My Dad taught me how to swim in the sea nearby. And my playground was Haw Par Villa (a 1930s theme park with vivid installations and dioramas on Chinese mythology and an especially quirky-gory section on the Ten Courts of Hell). Further up the street was a cinema where I’d watch people smoke. There was also a space to erect the wooden stage for the Chinese opera. Everybody came, whether they were Malay, Indian, or Chinese villagers.
You’re very active on Instagram. In fact, you’re well known for deleting themed projects from your page regularly to start afresh. What do you make of the young film photographers on the platform inspired by your photography?
It’s great that in addition to the Instagrammers who post only “pretty” pictures of Singapore, there are others who are experimenting with more personal narratives. Emerging artists are using social media to express themselves, and that frees up photography and the stories it tells from the usual cliques and clubs. Photography is democratic—now more than ever.
Kareena Gianani is the former Commissioning Editor at National Geographic Traveller India. She loves stumbling upon hole-in-the-wall bookshops, old towns and collecting owl souvenirs in all shapes and sizes.